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Review: 'Grounded' offers a powerful critique of America’s drone warfare doctrine

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Mikayla Goetz stars in Boots on the Ground Theater's production of "Grounded," part of Piccolo Spoleto.

The term "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder" was coined in 1980, the latest (and most clinical) label for a condition familiar to veterans and their family members since the Great War.

Haunted by memories of their brushes with death, as escapees or dealers, these veterans all would recognize the symptoms: anger, frustration, depression, paranoia and lack of a sex drive.

But what about drone pilots, who kill from half a world away with a second-and-a-half delay?

George Brant’s 2013 play “Grounded” explores the wartime experience one female fighter pilot who transitions from flying jets to drones after becoming pregnant. Five years later, the specifics of the Obama-era drone program have faded, but the trauma of those operations lives on both at home and abroad.

The one-woman production by South Carolina-based Boots on the Ground Theater stars Mikayla Goetz as the nameless pilot, who narrates her experiences in a bracing present tense. The sparse stage features just a metal chair, which Goetz turns into everything from her Naugahyde pilot’s seat in a trailer in the Mohave Desert to the television screen she watches with her husband each night to the wheels of the fast car she drives from her Las Vegas home to Creech Air Force base each morning.

The protagonist begins the play as a rock star fighter pilot, whose periodic bombing runs are mere distractions from her love of flying through “the blue.” After meeting her future husband on leave in Wyoming, she discovers that she is pregnant, which prevents her from flying and starts her on a path that leads to what she disparagingly refers to as “the Chair Force.”

Goetz, who spent months interviewing veterans in order to capture their unique brand of sublimated bravado, conveys soaring highs and tragic lows as her character sinks deeper into the monotony of drone warfare, from which the occasional strike on “military-age males” in an unidentified desert halfway around the world are the only breaks.

As her mission transitions from convoy overwatch to hunting a specific enemy commander, her double life as warrior and mother blend together into a paranoiac soup: her God’s-eye perspective from the drone pilot seat infiltrates her everyday life, turning security cameras and stretches of open sky into terrifying symbols of the life-and-death power she wields.

This production at Pure Theatre is a visceral reminder of the wounds carved into our national psyche when we charge young men and women with killing those we deem to be our enemies. It is also an apolitical critique of one of our country’s dark chapters, which feels at once anachronistic and deeply necessary in today’s America.

"Grounded" will be presented again at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Go to

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